How John Q. Citizen Can Affect Darfur
How John Q. Citizen Can Affect Darfur
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

How John Q. Citizen Can Affect Darfur

You might have read newspaper articles about the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, or seen images on television of refugees languishing in camps, and thought: "What does any of this have to do with me, and besides what could I actually do to help?" After all, these atrocities are taking place 7,000 miles away, and responding to mass violence against civilians is the responsibility of big bureaucratic agencies such as the United Nations, right?

The answer to these questions says a lot about the power that U.S. citizens have to effect change in other parts of the world. If you look closely at the international community's response to the Sudanese government's decision to unleash the murderous janjaweed militias on its own citizens in Darfur, and against civilians in neighboring Chad, you will find that ordinary U.S. citizens are taking some of the most relevant action to stop the violence.

As Adam Sterling and Sam Bell correctly stated on these pages Sunday, history tells us that the way to get the attention of Sudanese officials in Khartoum is to strike that which they prize most: their bulging pocketbooks. Targeted divestment, along with multilateral sanctions on specific individuals and their business interests, will force these individuals to choose between protecting their assets or maintaining a policy of state-sponsored mass murder.

Activists across the United States have responded to suffering in Darfur by demanding that their state and local governments and their universities divest themselves of holdings from companies that profit from business dealings with Sudanese officials accused of heinous atrocities.

Individual investors are even taking action. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., recently withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars of his family's investments with companies that do business with Sudan.

The conflict in Darfur is a symptom of a bigger political problem: the hoarding of wealth and power by the small group of racist ideologues who control Sudan. Regimes that treat women and children as military targets do so in part because they think they can get away with it, and officials in Khartoum are operating under the apparently correct assumption that there will be no cost for their actions. After all, what government would change its behavior simply because other countries politely ask it to do so?

In the past, strong punishment has forced the Sudanese government to change course. When the Clinton administration pushed to impose U.N. sanctions and unilateral trade restrictions on Sudan for supporting international terrorism, Khartoum responded by dismantling terrorist networks and cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies. Last January, when the U.S. put the full court press on Khartoum to sign a peace agreement with rebels in southern Sudan, the Bush administration scored a rare foreign policy victory.

It is all the more tragic, then, that these clear lessons have not been applied to Darfur. Despite all of the rhetoric and hand-wringing, the U.S. and its allies have not lifted a finger to punish the people responsible for Darfur's destruction. Moreover, many of the small steps that the Bush administration has taken to end what it calls genocide are in direct response to citizen pressure.

Why won't the U.S. government back its talk with real action? The answer is pretty straightforward: It doesn't want to jeopardize the Sudanese government's cooperation on important U.S. counterterrorism objectives. Many Sudanese officials responsible for creating the predatory janjaweed militias - especially those officials working within Sudan's labyrinth of security services - are the same people upon whom the CIA relies for information about al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that have lived in and operated from Sudan.

The Bush administration's decision to grant impunity for crimes against humanity in exchange for what some U.S. officials believe is dubious counterterrorism information not only is a deplorable moral compromise but also is predicated on faulty logic. Empirical evidence demonstrates that when the Sudanese bad guys are pressured, they change their tune. There is nothing to suggest that targeting their finances will undermine the counterterrorism connection.

If you think that the tragedy in the heart of Africa has nothing to do with you, think again. Despite the positive role played by the U.N. and related institutions in reducing conflict-related deaths around the world, the international community's failure to punish those responsible for crimes in Sudan reaffirms the growing misperception that the post-Holocaust institutions put in place to maintain international peace and security are a house of cards. That the suffering in Sudan has generated the largest citizen movement on an African issue since the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s suggests that many Americans want to believe otherwise.

A divestment campaign is under way in the Texas Legislature this session, aimed at pulling state funds from Sudan. That's at the statehouse; what's happening at yours? Do you have any ties to the Sudanese regime? What can you do to do make a difference?

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